Sun Power : Ventura County is home to the world's largest solar-cell maker. Photovoltaics is becoming a hot industry.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Good morning, fellow sun-lovers. Here we are in Southern California, home of the New Year's Day Rose Parade, which customarily reminds the world at large that we loll around outdoors in winter without hats and coats. (Never mind the stormy weather of the last week.) But what the whole world doesn't know--and what many otherwise hip Californians aren't aware of--is that right here in Ventura County, El Sol is the basis of an important industry. And I'm not talking tourism.

I'm talking photovoltaics. Our county is home to the 500 employees of Siemens Solar Industries. That company, based in Camarillo, produces more solar cells than anyone else in the world--and exports 75% of them. This may be some kind of record for an American-made anything, much less a high-tech something. And it's an environmentally friendly something, too.

"It's realities rather than subsidies that are making solar industry sales spike," says Sam Vanderhoof of the watchdog group California Solar Energy Assn. in Sacramento. Spiking is a reference to the jump that has become quite noticeable on photovoltaic company sales charts in the last few years.

Today's column is about the "electro-solar" kind of equipment, rather than the "thermal-solar" rigs that are used for water heating, though they too are selling well nowadays.

The initial electro-solar manufacturing spike was in the early '70s, when the industry enjoyed a subsidy in the form of tax breaks in California and elsewhere. A lot of us remember that with distaste because it spawned fly-by-night companies whose products and services were poor. Well, those days are apparently behind us. Technology breakthroughs and business Darwinism has winnowed and toughened the flock. The pragmatic survived.

"Recently, we sold 20,000 solar-power generating units to the Coast Guard to replace the battery-operated buoy lights they're responsible for," Siemens spokesman Bill Howley said.

In March, the firm reported that it had won a $20-million contract to supply, install and maintain photovoltaic systems as part of drought-fighting efforts in the West African countries of Cape Verde, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania and Senegal.

It's an irony that an industry once thought to be a question mark is now a supplier of "life and death" equipment. As I've noted in this space before, the emergency call boxes along the freeways use photovoltaic cells to power the cellular phones we use to call for help. And ranchers in our county and throughout the West are using photovoltaic equipment made by Siemens and others to provide electricity to their remote ranches. That's because power contractors would have charged as much as $30,000 to run lines to the ranches, whereas the cost of installing a solar rig runs half that and means no monthly power bills.

These kinds of market advances have taken Siemens from seven employees to more than 500 in the county today. Howley estimates that sales are growing 20% annually. Consumer-oriented solar lighting products for homes, ranches, RVs and boats, he adds, are now selling at Sears, Home Depot, Ace and True Value stores locally and nationwide.

My favorite is a sensor light you can install on the garage or front of the house. When it senses motion, it floods the area with light--discouragement for burglars, encouragement for a homeowner fumbling with his or her keys. And you don't have to string wires to set it up.

The Camarillo solar operation was a subsidiary of Arco until March, 1990, when it was acquired by Siemens, a German parent company, for an estimated $30 million to $50 million.

Instead of relocating the photovoltaic doings elsewhere, the parent firm has made the Ventura County operation the supervisory headquarters of solar activities that take place in other countries, including Japan.

As a result, we in Ventura County are profiting from job preservation as a result of sales to European countries, as those nations begin to mandate eco-friendly power sources.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, New York, Massachusetts and Nevada have put in place public utility regulations that may encourage electric utilities to use large-scale applications of photovoltaic generating equipment. (The motivation is obvious enough: At the moment, a third of America's smog comes from the coal, oil and gas burned to generate our electricity.)

This summer, California put similar regulations in effect, but the consequences are not yet clear. Competing energy-source providers have made noises about court tests of the legality of such regulations.

But, as Vanderhoof said, the solar power industry in general and the photovoltaic manufacturers in particular are moving ahead briskly because of economic and environmental reality, whether there are government regulations or not.

In the words of the old Beatles song, "Here comes the sun."

* FYI

Ace, Sears, True Value and Home Depot carry photovoltaic home and recreational lighting and battery charging equipment. A "pathmaker" yard light sells for as little as $17. Devices to keep your RV batteries charged, regardless of where you drive, cost about $150. Siemens is a local brand. So is Solarmode, made in Oxnard, which is available by phone order. I mentioned their product as an eco-friendly Christmas gift last month and, alas, misstated the company's phone number. It's 486-1105.

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